Stories from Greek History - Ethelwyn Lemon

Solon (B.C. 638–558)

Long, long ago, more than six hundred years before the time of Christ, the Greek city of Athens had gone to war with Megara to get possession of the island of Salamis.

The war had lasted so long that every one was tired of it; the poorer men, because they had to leave their farms for their wives and children to manage as best they could; and the richer ones, because they had to fight and endure hardships instead of amusing themselves, and living at their ease at home, as they did when there was peace. So they all agreed to let Megara have Salamis, and passed a law that no one was ever to say that Salamis should by right belong to Athens, or he would be put to death. This was a very cowardly law, but as no one wanted to be put to death, no one dared to say a word against it for some time.

But one day a great noise was heard in the market-place of Athens, and every one ran out of doors to see what was the matter. A handsome young man was shouting at the top of his voice, mid waving his arms about, like one that was mad. He was wearing a cap, which none but sick men wore in those days. And many whispered, "Who is he?" And others answered, "Hush! listen to him; he has gone mad, but he is talking words of wisdom." "Ay," said another, "for he is telling us to get back Salamis. Poor fellow, it is young Solon, the poet, whose father wasted all his money. I hope they will not punish him for this with death."

But Solon, the poor nobleman, was only pretending to be mad. He thought it a disgrace for Athens to lose Salamis, and chose this way of saying so. And the people were so moved by his words, even though they were the words of a madman (as they thought), that they decided to fight again. They chose Solon as general, and he won back Salamis for them.

Solon in the marketplace


And after that, though he still wrote poetry, it was more serious poetry than before, for he went about among the people, and saw many sad things happening. Poor men, who had fallen into debt, because of bad harvests, like the Highland Crofters some years ago, were dragged off to prison by their creditors, or to the slave-market. There they were sold as slaves, and their wives and children were taken from them, since the same masters did not often buy all of a family. And Solon asked many questions about all that he saw, and soon was wiser than almost any other Athenian. So when it was decided that something must be done to make matters better, all the citizens thought that Solon was the best man to do it.

Solon made some very wise laws. One of these forbade rich men to sell poor men into slavery because they could not pay their debts. Another took away all the rights of a citizen from every Athenian who did not take one side or the other at a time of civil strife. This was a very important law, and it made Athenians take a great interest in politics always, so that they soon grew to be the ablest people in the world at making new laws and reforming old ones.

Solon's other laws were meant to keep the nobles from getting all the power into their own hands. If they had been obeyed, the people would all have lived happily together. But they were not obeyed; though Solon was not there to see this at first. For after bidding the Athenians keep all his laws faithfully, he went away to travel in distant lands for ten years. He wished to see how the people in other lands managed their business. He felt that it would be better to leave his own people alone for a little while until they grew accustomed to the new laws. Some writers, who were not very careful about dates, used to tell a very nice story of this part of Solon's life. I am going to tell it to you, although it never happened, because until quite lately it was thought that perhaps it was true.

There was in Lydia a king named Croesus, who was the richest man in the world. Solon was said to have visited him. Croesus took his famous guest all over his palace and his treasure-room to show him all the store of gold and silver and precious stones he had. And many beautiful pictures he showed too, and statues, the loveliest in the world. Solon looked at them all, and admired them, but he did not seem so full of astonishment as Croesus would have liked. At last Croesus said, "Tell me, Solon, if you think any man in the world is happier than I?"

He hoped that Solon would say that he was the happiest of all. And he was vexed when Solon said, "O King, Tellus the Athenian, who died fighting bravely for his country, is the happiest man I know of."

"Do I, then, come next to Tellus?" asked Croesus.

"Nay, O King, but two noble youths, who were kind to their aged mother. And she prayed to the gods to reward them. The gods answered her prayer by taking her sons to themselves."

Croesus was very angry at this answer. Yet he asked again, "Then do you not count me a happy man?"

But Solon answered gravely, "O King, count no man happy till he dies. For none of us know what the gods have in store for us while we yet live."

And with that he went sadly away, thinking he had angered Croesus for no good.

Years afterwards, so the story goes, Croesus was defeated in a great battle by Cyrus, King of Persia. Cyrus made a great pile, bound Croesus tightly, and laid him on the top. And he had set the pile on fire, so that Croesus would soon have been burned. But he shouted, "Solon, Solon." Cyrus asked a servant why Croesus called for Solon. The servant told him what I have just told you. Then Cyrus, who was a much better and wiser man than Croesus, told his soldiers to lift Croesus off the fire. He took him home, and treated him kindly as long as he lived. So Solon was the means of saving Croesus' life.

When at last he went home to Athens, Solon was very distressed to find that the only law that had been kept was that which told the citizens to take part in political life. The people had obeyed that thoroughly, and there were three political parties in the State. The "Men of the Upland" formed one; they were all poor farm-labourers. Then there were the "Men of the Plain," who were nearly all rich noblemen. Thirdly, there were the "Men of the Shore," who were merchants. Every citizen belonged to one or other of these. Solon's clever cousin, Peisistratus, led the Men of the Upland, and in the end this party had the best of it.

Poor Solon was very unhappy, even though his cousin was very kind to him, and told the people to keep Solon's laws. He often asked Solon's advice. But Solon warned the people that they were "treading in the footsteps of the fox" by helping Peisistratus.

And indeed Peisistratus behaved as slyly as a fox. One day he drove into the market-place, bleeding from dreadful wounds which he had given himself. The poor people crowded round his chariot to ask him how he had been so hurt. He pretended that some wicked men had tried to kill him because he was working for the good of the poor Men of the Upland. Unless he had some soldiers to guard him, he said, he might soon be murdered.

The Men of the Upland voted that he should have a guard of soldiers to follow him about. And then it became clear what his plan was. Soon he used the soldiers to seize for himself the chief power in the city, and made himself Despot. (This was the name given to a ruler who could do whatever he liked with the people and the laws.)

The leaders of the Men of the Plain and of the Men of the Shore had to leave Athens. For a time Peisistratus had his own way in everything.

Solon grew more and more unhappy over this change in the way of government, and could not be comforted. He shut himself up in his house in grief because his beloved Athens was no longer a free city. Two years after Peisistratus became Despot he died.

Every one had loved him, and all were very sorry for his death.

Peisistratus ruled wisely and kindly, and welcomed to his Court many wise and clever men. He tried to make Athens famous for great literature and beautiful statues and noble buildings. Twice he was driven from his throne and city by his enemies. Yet before he died he had done his country much good, and might have satisfied even his cousin Solon had he been there to see.